Charles Coughlin (1891–1979) was born on October 25, 1891, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Coughlin graduated from the University of Toronto in 1911. He then attended St. Basil's Seminary in Toronto, and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1916.
Coughlin's Background and Views
Coughlin's views as a priest were influenced by late eighteenth century Catholic teachings emphasizing conservative clerical activism. His views were also shaped by the Basilian Order to which he belonged. Founded in France in the early nineteenth century, the Basilians studied medieval church doctrine in the context of fierce opposition to modern economic and social developments. They believed that the Church should return to its theological roots and, among other issues, restore the prohibition against usury, which many Basilians regarded as a main source of the ills that afflicted modern society.
Such views would blend with antisemitism in Coughlin's radio broadcasts throughout his career. In a 1930 broadcast, Coughlin attributed the current economic problems on those who profited from usury stating, “We have lived to see the day that modern Shylocks have grown fat and wealthy, praised and deified, because they have perpetuated the ancient crime of usury under the modern racket of statesmanship.” Coughlin left the Basilian Order in 1918 and became a diocesan priest under the diocese of Detroit.
From 1916 to 1923, Coughlin was on the faculty at Assumption College in Sandwich (now Windsor), Ontario, Canada. After a chance meeting with Michael Gallagher, the bishop of the diocese of Detroit, he was given the opportunity to establish a new parish in Royal Oak, Michigan—the Shrine of the Little Flower. This church served as the center of Coughlin's operations for the next forty years.
In October 1926, Coughlin broadcast his first radio address. Originally his broadcasts taught catechism classes for children, but he soon moved on to broadcasting religious services with political overtones. By the time of the 1929 stock market crash, Coughlin had a large, loyal audience and had gained the reputation of a spokesperson for the “common man.” In 1930, he launched a crusade against communism, drawing upon his own fear and that of others that a communist influence was spreading throughout the United States.
Coughlin and Franklin D. Roosevelt
Having become a US citizen while in Detroit, Coughlin was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He believed that only Roosevelt could pull the United States out of the Great Depression and, at the same time, protect the country from the perceived communist threat. Coughlin used his radio program—The Hour of Power—to induce his followers to vote for Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential elections. Roosevelt was distrustful of Coughlin from the beginning and only wanted his endorsement to help get elected.
Once president, however, Roosevelt appeared to ignore Coughlin's contribution to getting him elected, and slowly distanced his administration from Coughlin's rough-hewn populism. Roosevelt managed to charm Coughlin into overestimating his importance to the administration, and continued to use Coughlin's influence to help garner public support for the New Deal. As he did during the election, Coughlin used his radio program to support the New Deal and to attack those opposed to it. When he realized that he was not going to play a key role in Roosevelt's cabinet, however, Coughlin felt betrayed, and, after several attempts to get the President to notice him, turned on Roosevelt. By the end of 1935, Coughlin used his radio program to attack both the President and the New Deal.
Throughout the 1930s, Coughlin was one of the most influential men in the United States. A new post office was constructed in Royal Oak just to process the letters that he received each week—80,000 on average. Furthermore, the audience of his weekly radio broadcasts was in the tens of millions, presaging modern talk radio and televangelism.
National Union for Social Justice
In 1935, Coughlin created the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) as a political action group that would represent the interests of his listeners in Washington, DC. By the 1936 presidential election the NUSJ had over one million paying members.
In 1936, Coughlin founded a journal entitled Social Justice, providing another venue to promote his populist ideology. The NUSJ tabled 16 principles as guidelines for their program for the United States. These included:
- liberty of conscience and education;
- nationalization of resources too important to be held by individuals;
- abolition of the Federal Reserve Board;
- return to Congress the right to coin and regulate money;
rights of workers to organize unions;
- requisition of wealth and conscription of men in times of war;
- and the principle that human rights should outweigh property rights.
Coughlin was ahead of his time in splitting his ticket and supporting issues associated with the left (such as federal support to prop up the dollar), and issues associated with the right (“America First” foreign policy).
Over the years Coughlin had managed to keep his antisemitism muted while he was on the air. After his split with Roosevelt and with the rise of National Socialism and Fascism in Europe, however, he attacked Jews explicitly in his broadcasts. Some historians attribute this change to Coughlin taking advantage of rising antisemitism around the world in order to keep himself relevant. Based on his speeches, writings, and associations, however, he appears to have had significant antisemitic sentiment throughout his career.
For years, Coughlin had publicly derided “international bankers,” a phrase that most of his listeners understood to mean Jewish bankers. In the days and weeks after Kristallnacht, Coughlin defended the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime, arguing that Kristallnacht was justified as retaliation for Jewish persecution of Christians. He explained to his listeners on November 20, 1938 that the “communistic government of Russia,” “the Lenins and Trotskys…atheistic Jews and Gentiles” had murdered more than 20 million Christians and had stolen “40 billion [dollars]…of Christian property.”
In a series of articles published in Social Justice during 1938, Coughlin lambasted “Jewish” financiers and their control over world politics, culminating with a story recounting his own version of the infamous 20th Century forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to be minutes of meetings of Jewish leaders as they plotted to take over the world.
Shift Toward Extreme Right
As war approached, Coughlin's politics shifted further toward the extreme right. He promoted fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism. He associated with fascist leaders and known antisemitic thinkers in Great Britain and the United States, including
- US auto manufacturer Henry Ford
- Dennis Fahey, professor at Holy Ghost Missionary College of Dublin, Ireland, and supporter of the French fascist movement Action Française, which aimed to establish an anti-modern, authoritarian, and antisemitic regime in France
- Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists
- Hilaire Belloc, an Anglo-French novelist, poet, and debater whose book The Jews listed Jews as a distinct racial group that could never assimilate in Europe
- and Ezra Pound, a US poet who spouted antisemitic statements and developed an admiration of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini
In a 1938 broadcast, Coughlin helped inspire and publicize the creation of the Christian Front, a militia-like organization that excluded Jews and promised to defend the country from communists and Jews.
The Front organized “Buy Christian” rallies throughout the country. In New York City, police arrested several of the militiamen for harassing Jews on the street, many of them seniors, women, and children. In the context of increasingly violent language, the Christian Front made national news in 1940, when the FBI arrested 18 members in Brooklyn, New York, on suspicion of conspiring to overthrow the government. Its members continued to attract headlines during the early 1940s for violent acts against Jews.
An isolationist from the beginning of his career, Coughlin had blamed Jews for inciting the strife in Europe. He vigorously opposed any intervention by the United States government. Even after the Japanese navy and air force attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Coughlin denounced the entry of the United States into World War II, claiming that the Jews had planned the war for their own benefit and had conspired to involve the United States.
This last missive proved to be his undoing, however, for the US Government had been tracking Coughlin even before Pearl Harbor. In September 1941 his request for a passport was denied by the State Department with the stated reason: “reported pro-Nazi.”
Coughlin's comments after Pearl Harbor and changing public sentiment towards entry into the war gave the government its opportunity. In 1942, agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided Coughlin's church and seized all parish records and personal papers. During the investigation, US Attorney General Francis Biddle argued that Coughlin's magazine Social Justice had repeated “in this country the lines of enemy propaganda warfare being waged against this country from abroad.”
While US authorities permitted Coughlin to continue publishing his magazine, it prohibited him from using the US Postal Service to disseminate it. On May 1, 1942, Archbishop Edward Mooney, the new leader of the Catholic Church in Detroit, instructed Coughlin to cease all non-pastoral activities on pain of being defrocked.
Coughlin's Retirement and Death
Coughlin continued to oversee the Shrine of the Little Flower until his retirement in 1966. He died of heart failure on October 27, 1979.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have moved citizens to listen to and agree with Father Coughlin?
- How can citizens respond responsibly to demagogues like Coughlin, who usually inflame divisions and denigrate groups in society?
Warren, Donald. Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin the Father of Hate Radio. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
Marcus, Sheldon. Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.
Coughlin, Charles. The Fine Art of Propaganda: A Study of Father Coughlin's Speeches. Edited by Alfred McClung Lee and Elizabeth Briant Lee. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, c1939.